The Shakahola mass suicide or, more accurately, Shakahola killings has grabbed news attention around the world, as the number of bodies exhumed in mass graves increases in Kenya. The forest in the coastal region of Kenya, ‘Shakhahola’ was hailed by the Mijikenda community as a place vital for independence during their colonial struggle. Today, it is a place filled with misery as Kenyans grapple with the deaths of their loved ones.
Pastor Paul Mackenzie, is alleged to have forced his congregants to fast to death so that they could meet Jesus. Over 300 bodies have been exhumed, and over 600 are thought to be missing in the 800-acre Shakahola Forest.
Strangulations and forced killings have also been recorded and survivors from the ordeal described how children were forced to fast and endure harsh physical punishments such as whipping which was used on those who refused to fast.
The Shakahola grave diggers have also told how Mackenzie and his co-conspirators would forcibly strangle those who did not follow the correct prayer norms. Rituals related to blood and human organs have been stated by those who followed Mackenzie’s behaviours, however more evidence is needed to substantiate this fact.
As it stands Pastor Paul Mackenzie is being held without bail, but maintains his innocence. To learn more about what is being described as a modern-day Jonestown Massacre, The Atlantic Dispatch spoke with Fathima Azmiya Badurdeen, Lecturer, Department of Social Sciences, Technical University of Mombasa.
Can you tell us more about what the Good News International Church is and who Pastor Paul Mackenzie is?
In 2003, Pastor Paul Mackenzie founded the Good News International Church in Malindi. He was the fifth of 11 children in his family, with a modest upbringing in the coastal region of Kenya. On finishing school, he lived on odd jobs and later became a cab driver. He started attending church sermons on weekends as he continued with his taxi business during the weekdays. It was during this time he had revelations to start his own church. In the year 2003, his preaching career kicked off.
He became well-known for his preaching and used to get invites to conduct sermons at the Malindi Fellowship Baptist. This was his breakthrough as his reputation as a famous preacher began to grow. Then in 2003, as I mentioned he founded his own church.
The Good News International Church conducted the gospel programme ‘End Time Messages’ viewed through channel 813 every weekday and weekend until the TV station was sold in 2019 to another famous preacher, Pastor Ezekial of the New Life Prayer Centre. According to his followers, Mackenzie was a charismatic leader with the ability to indoctrinate members who could obey him.
Mackenzie’s teachings would attract many with individual vulnerabilities such as substance abuse, anxiety, socio-psychological related – personal or family crisis pertaining to marriage, diseases or having a deviant child. People came with their problems, and he gave them ‘hope.’ This was where Mackenzie had total control of their lives and a platform for manipulating his followers.
Residents of Malindi in Kilifi County explained that Mackenzie had relocated to Malindi town in 2015 and that his sole purpose was to convert as many followers to his beliefs. However, he did not want to operate in the town as some of the people were hostile towards his preaching. Therefore, Mackenzie bought a field in the Shakahola forest in 2022. This is where he would carry out his atrocities,
It was here he had the freedom to convert people. Many lived in makeshift homes of polythene and simple mud houses in the forest that Mackenzie divided into areas with biblical names like Jerusalem and Judea. Shakahola was referred to as Bethlehem away from Babel (which he referred to as the outside world).
Despite being under government scrutiny and previously having a brush with the law, how has Pastor Mackenzie been able to carry out such atrocities
Mackenzie became world news after the massacre took place in the Shakahola forest this year. However, this is not the first time he has had a conflict with the law. He has been arrested previously, in 2017 and 2019.
Mackenzie had repeatedly attracted police attention with his claims that children should not go to school and that medical treatments should be rejected. In 2017 together with his wife Joys Mwikamba, they appeared before Malindi Chief Magistrate Dr Julie Oseko where they pleaded not guilty to a charge of promoting radicalisation.
It was then In 2019, that he was charged with being in possession and distributing films that were deemed to promote radicalisation to the public, and had not been examined and classified by the Kenya Films Classification Board. In 2019 he shut down the church and invited his followers to move with him to Shakahola, a place he called a new “Holy Land”.
In March 2023, the Pastor was arrested for encouraging the parents of two boys to starve and suffocate them to death. However, he has maintained his innocence in both cases. Most often Mackenzie fell out from government scrutiny as his operations were seen as within the constitutional provisions on freedom of religion or belief (Article 32). Further, there were no rods to measure radical preaching as the context of radicalisation fell within the self-regulations of mainstream religious institutions and their denominators. Tactically, Mackenzie’s operation base after 2019, was more covert. Moving into the Shakahola forest meant more space to propagate his teachings.
What has been the reaction to this in Kenya?
Survivors mention the entire incident as ‘the Holy Betrayal.’ This reveals how people who faced the devestation as well as the communities view the incident. For some, it is a feeling of anguish as they believe that they have blindly followed a leader who has betrayed them and endangered their lives and their family members.
For some, it is the feeling of shock as they come to terms with the understanding of the incident and the reality of the dangers of blindly following religious teachings interpreted by so-called ‘pastors’ who use religion for their selfish gains under the disguise of divine connections. For others, it’s a state’s failure of not being able to prevent such atrocities under the pretext of religiosity and ill-regulated religious institutions.
Does more need to be done to ensure this is never allowed to happen again?
The first thing is to understand the unfolding events related to the Shakahola killings and to contextualise what makes Mackenzie’s preaching extreme. We know that his preaching had religious quoting as well as misinterpretations of such religious verses, which makes the entire preaching extreme – like ‘fasting to death.’ Every religion has some form of fasting, but no religion subscribes to extreme forms.
These forms of teachings are tied to apocalyptic narratives of the ‘end of the world’. Mackenzie preached that the end of the world is coming and it was not secular schools that will save them but religious teachings. Hence going to school was something he was totally against, as well as going to the doctors for medication. Most teachings harped apocalyptic ‘end of times chronicles’ and conspirator theories that messages of ‘outside’ mainly the knowledge from the West or modernity was bad or evil.
These types of teaching are quite similar in religious extremist movements such as ‘Boko Haram’ – where Western secular education was considered evil. He also considered local practices such as witchcraft and rituals as Satanic or devil worshipping. Again, this contradicts some of his teachings where he used rituals such as ‘who to die first among his congregants’ and how they are buried.
We also need to understand did Mackenzie use particular ritualistic practices which he himself forbade others to use, considering it as Satanic. And when such preaching occurred, where was the community or institutions regulating such extreme forms of religion?
Apart from a few, the entire community remained quiet or had no idea of what was happening in Shakahola. Those who knew and complained to the relevant authorities saw their pleasing fall on deaf ears. There also remains the question of where was the vetting for such an extreme religious leader.
There is a need to strengthen religious regulatory institutions to assess complaints arising from the practice of religion and belief in Kenya. It is also vital that we understand what attracts followers to such religious leaders. While these leaders are charismatic, there are other factors that need to be considered to be able to understand the motives of followers.
Most followers come with their own problems and grievances and these religious leaders provide solutions. In fact, these leaders have the ability to sell ‘hope’ to the people. These ‘hope-led’ relationships provide a form of bonding, love and obligation towards the leader. These leaders exploit these relationships for their own self-fulfilling prophecies or selfish needs. This is what led many to sell their properties and give money to Mackenzie and then give up all worldly things to go and live in the Shakahola forest. How can we enable an environment of critical thinking for followers even within religious preaching?
How dangerous is religious extremism not just in Kenya but in general? How close does it come to being a cult?
Religious extremists with their violent words and acts can pose considerable damage to communities in Kenya and elsewhere. It becomes important to have mechanisms inbuilt within communities to monitor their religious leaders and their belief or practices. Religious cults share similarities with extremist recruitment pathways as well as in operations.
How we view the Shakahola atrocity is subjective – whether we view it along the religious extremist lens or religious cult lenses – both have similarities and differences. What is similar in both terminologies used are the extreme forms of preaching, incitement to violence (whether at an individual level or at a community level) and the charismatic leadership or the recruiter who mobilises and gives momentum to the cult or the movement. The difference is the lack of a political objective as what characterises many religious extremist movements.
With thanks to Fathima Azmiya Badurdeen – Postdoctoral Researcher, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen, Netherlands. Lecturer, Department of Social Sciences, Technical University of Mombasa, Kenya. Presently, the author is working on the research project ‘Reimagining Religion, Security and Social Transformation’ under the Joint Initiative for Strategic Religious Action (JISRA) focused on Freedom of Religion or Belief in Kenya and Indonesia.